Busan Festival Deputy Director Kim Ji-seok Dies at 57

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Kim Ji-seok

A founding member of BIFF, Kim suffered a fatal heart attack during the Cannes Film Festival.

Kim Ji-seok, deputy director of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), died Thursday in Cannes. He was 57.

The respected South Korean film expert suffered a fatal heart attack, sources close to BIFF told The Hollywood Reporter. Fest organizers later confirmed the facts on Friday morning.

The Korean Film Council booth at the Palais in Cannes set up a tribute for him with a photo and white flowers, which are traditional funeral flowers in South Korea. The Confucian tradition allows people to pay their respects for three to five days. His family is understood to be flying to Cannes.

"Our dear Kim Ji-seok died yesterday after suffering a heart attack in Cannes," Cannes film festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux said Friday. "He was one of the great inspirations behind the Busan Festival where he always stood out. He was a great professional and a great program organizer, always curious about everything – he saw every film there was to see."

Added Fremaux: "He was a fierce defender of Korean cinema, having accompanied the emergence of the new generation in his country. With Christian Jeune, we loved him dearly and are heartbroken at his passing. The Festival de Cannes pays tribute to him and presents its deepest condolences to his family. This tragic news came the day of the presentation of a film by his great friend Bong Joon Ho. Our community has lost one of its most precious members."

Born in 1960 in Busan and raised in the port city, Kim was a founder member of the Busan Festival which has now grown to become Asia's largest. Kim was among the "the BIFF big four," along with founder/chairman Kim Dong-ho, former fest director Lee Yong-kwan and former deputy director Jay Jeon. 

After graduating from Busan National University in 1983 and obtaining a master's in film and theater at Joong Ang University in Seoul in 1990, Kim began working for BIFF in 1996. Having long served as BIFF's head programmer, Kim was particularly known for curating Busan's signature Asian selections. Among others, he has been credited with helping launch the careers of such renowned Asian filmmakers as Jia Zhangke, Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Zhang Ming.

Last June, Kim was named deputy director of BIFF, which was met with some controversy, as he had filled in for the much-contested absence of fellow fest co-founders Lee and Jeon. However, as BIFF became further enveloped in a government censorship scandal that left the South Korean film community divided and torn, he also was seen as one of the few veterans that could help hold the fest together.

"This is truly shocking," Kim Si-moo, film critic and former president of the Film Studies Association of Korea, told THR. "Mr. Kim was a workaholic; he never even drank and devoted all his energy to the festival. He was a like an idea bank and was the one behind some of BIFF's signature sideline events like the Ajudamdam talk show series. I imagine he must've been overworked and under a lot of stress as he filled in the empty shoes of his two co-founders [Lee Yong-kwan and Jay Jeon]."

Kim's personal life has also been well known to have followed the arc of BIFF's history. He married in 1996, the year BIFF was inaugurated, while he has said in media interviews that his son also wished to work for the festival.

"[With his] undying efforts, contribution and devotion in discovery of Asian films, Kim led Busan International Film Festival to be the center of Asian cinema and a world-class film festival," said BIFF organizers in a statement released to the press on Friday.

"The People's Party expresses our condolences over this sudden death," said Ko Yeon-ho, chief spokesperson of the South Korean party, in a statement. "It is our hope that the Moon Jae-in administration will help reinstate the Busan International Film Festival and revive the somewhat torn Korean film industry. [It is imperative that the government] support the unfairly dismissed Lee Yong-kwan and Jay Jeon to regain their honor and have them return to their positions, thereby guaranteeing artistic freedom."

May 19, 12:05 a.m. Updated with additional biographical information about Kim Ji-seok and quotes.

May 20, 12:12 a.m. Kim Si-moo was previously identified as president of the Film Studies Association of Korea, but his tenure has recently ended. THR apologizes for the mistake.

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